The Political and Demographic Challenges of the 2016 Presidential Election


It is quite interesting to speculate about the 2016 presidential nomination battles and especially potential general election winners and losers. But, it might be best for all of us to keep our powder dry. Current conventional wisdom has it that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and any of a gaggle of contenders will be the choice of the Republicans.

Perhaps correct, perhaps not.

Transport yourself back to this point in the 2008 campaign, that is, to early 2007. Clinton was the putative “lock” for the Democratic nomination and Rudy Giuliani was the odds-on favorite for the Republicans. I don’t recall having the option to vote for either on Nov. 4, 2008.

For that reason, this analysis does not focus on who will get the nominations or even who will win the general election but rather focuses on what challenges both parties will face in the general election battle.

We hear theories that the Republicans cannot win unless they nominate a transformational candidate who broadens the party’s coalition. But, we also hear theories that the way for the Republicans to win is to get out the “hidden” conservative/Tea Party majority.

About the Democrats we hear that Clinton is a lock for the nomination and presidency and just needs to get on with it but also that she has too much baggage, her time has passed, and that new faces are needed.

We’ll see after the voters speak.

But, what we can do now is identify facts, forces, and factors that create both risks and opportunities for the parties in 2016.

What are these facts, forces, and factors?

The best way to answer this question is to break it down into three components:

1. Challenges, risks, and opportunities that both major parties face;
2. Challenges for the Republicans; and
3. Challenges for the Democrats.

Bipartisan challenges

The challenges facing both parties in 2016 are legion, so let’s focus on a few major ones:

1. To re-state the obvious, neither party yet has a nominee. The Democrats have a formidable frontrunner who has great strengths but also weaknesses and heavy baggage. If she falters other well-known politicians may enter the fray. The Republicans have a cavalry charge with more than a dozen candidates who could capture the nomination. The Crystal Ball’s approach of recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates is on target. History shows that the importance of the candidates themselves lays in the images and policy positions they will present to the voters. These images and issue positions can easily swing millions of votes toward one candidate or the other.

2. No one knows what crisis Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi, the Ayatollahs, or anyone else will send our way between now and Nov. 8, 2016. The world is a dangerous place that makes life difficult for presidents and presidential candidates.

3. No one knows if another recession, worldwide credit crisis, or other catastrophe will befall us between now and Election Day. Recall that John McCain held a slight lead in the polls right before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008. He was essentially unelectable after that crisis hit.

4. As Alan Abramowitz discussed in January, the 2016 election handicaps as being very close, unless President Obama’s approval rating moves outside the low 40s to low 50s range.

5. The basic partisanship of likely voters in the US is close to parity, and there is no question that partisanship is the best predictor of vote choice. In recent presidential years, the Democrats have had a small advantage that often disappears in off-year elections. Because of the uncertainties noted above we don’t know which way partisan sentiment and turnout will move by November 2016. What we do know is that the electorate is always changing.

Republican challenges

Analysts are correct in pointing out the major demographic challenges facing the Republicans, including:

1. The Hispanic percentage of total turnout has gone from 7% in 2000 to 10% in 2012 and is almost certain to continue to increase.

2. The Hispanic vote has gone from an average of 58%-40% Democratic in the years of George W. Bush to 69%-29% in the Obama years. No one can say for sure where it will fall in 2016, but it is highly likely that it will stay strongly Democratic.

3. The Asian/Native American/Mixed Race “Other” vote has increased from 3% in 2000-04 to 5% in 2012. This is very likely to be another growing problem for the Republicans.

4. The Other vote was 67%-30% Democratic in 2012 and is very unlikely to go to parity in the 2016 presidential election. [Note: This vote did split evenly in the 2014 congressional elections.]

5. Non-Hispanic white turnout has gone from 81% of the total vote in 2000 to 72% in 2012, costing the Republicans dearly as the white voter group is where they get the vast majority of their votes.

Democratic challenges

The Democrats also face difficult demographic and political challenges:

1. Only rarely do American voters keep the same party in control of the White House for more than eight years in a row. Since the Korean War it has happened only once, when George H.W. Bush succeeded the very popular Ronald Reagan.

2. A strong argument can be made that the 2008 and 2012 election voting patterns had an “Obama Effect” embedded within them. Although the black percentage of the US population has been stable at about 12%, the black percentage of turnout increased from 10% in 2000 to 13% in 2008 and 2012. It is likely to recede closer to its previous level for the 2016 election as Obama will no longer be on the ballot. In the off-year elections in 2010 and 2014, when President Obama was not on the ballot, it averaged 11%.

3. Similarly, the average black vote in 2008 and 2012 favored Democrats 94% to 4%. This contrasts to a pre-Obama average of 89%-9%. This also is likely an Obama Effect and is likely to regress toward its previous level.

4. The labor-union household vote has been little remarked upon by pundits but it is a crucial Democratic constituency. Voters from these households voted 59% Democratic to 39% Republican before and during the Obama years. However, this group’s percentage of total turnout has fallen sharply from 26% in 2000 to 18% in 2012. This mirrors the nationwide decline in union membership, which shows no sign of abating. And, this eight percentage point decline is essentially the same size as the nine-point drop in white turnout.

5. President Obama excited voters under the age of 30, brought them to the polls, and got a large percentage of their vote in his two presidential elections. This may or may not persist and depends in large part on the appeal of the Democratic nominee next year, though nonwhites make up a large portion of this age cohort.

6. From 2000 to 2012, the votes of those 65 and older have gone from favoring the Democratic candidate 51%-47% to preferring the Republican 54%-44% in steady steps, a gain of seven points for the Republicans and a net swing of 14 points. As this voter group is overwhelmingly white and is projected to grow rapidly, this change will be an ongoing challenge for the Democrats.


So, who wins in 2016? It is impossible to say because of the factors, forces, and facts noted here and dozens more which others can and will add. The electorate is changing as it does during every decade, we do not have nominees yet, and foreign policy or domestic disasters could and probably will befall us.

Stay tuned. The ride will be both entertaining and uncertain for us political junkies.

Dr. Alfred J. Tuchfarber, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, is the founder of UC’s Ohio Poll.